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From the Editor: We Need to Rapidly Replenish the Engineering Workforce

Robert Schickel on November 30, 2023 - in Articles, Column

In 1971, the year I was starting my career, the job market for civil engineers wasn’t very strong. I received one job offer and many letters stating the employer would keep my resume on file in case anything should turn up. Most of my colleagues from that time had similar experiences.

The interstate program was slowing down, and inflation was high. My fellow graduates and I accepted whatever offers we received. Some who could afford it went on to graduate school. I started my career with the Indiana Department of Transportation; it all turned out fine, and I’m pleased with the way my career progressed.

Limited Human Resources

These days, the problem is basically the reverse. My senior civil engineering students at Valparaiso University are in the fortunate position of having multiple options: different job opportunities and locations and/or graduate school. There aren’t enough civil engineers to meet the demand. Some quick internet research revealed the following:

• We need 25,000 new civil engineers each year for the next decade just to maintain the current work output. This estimate doesn’t include the increase due to the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics)

• The number of civil engineering jobs is expected to grow by 5 percent (above the average of 3 percent) during the next decade.

• There has been a 1 percent decrease in the number of graduates in the last few years.

Civil engineers have known about our aging infrastructure for years, and we’ve always lobbied for more funding to solve this issue. Now the dollars are available, and we have a significant challenge: there’s an increase in the demand for new engineers, but there’s increasing difficulty in retaining experienced personnel. This causes a problem that was never in my realm of decision making.

My company would occasionally decide not to pursue work for various reasons—we may not have been prequalified for a particular type of work or for some political reason. But we could always find the resources to perform the job. These days, the reality of an inadequate workforce limits the choices engineering firms make in pursuing new work.

What’s causing this problem? Part of the problem is simple demographics. The baby-boom generation is retiring, and subsequent generations have had fewer children. College enrollment is down in general and, unfortunately, this includes STEM disciplines.

Building the Workforce

Many studies have proven that this is an immediate concern, but what can we do about it? There are likely some solutions within our direct influence. We can provide the work environment employees desire, which can help retain employees and attract new ones. I’m betting this isn’t enough. There may be some solutions that aren’t directly within our power to establish and may take time to significantly increase the number of engineers to meet our needs.

The following are a few ideas that have come up in my conversations regarding increasing enrollment at Valparaiso University:

• At the university level, we’re trying to reach minorities at the high school level. Employers can make a concerted effort to reach out to Historically Black Colleges and Universities and other underrepresented groups to diversify the pool of candidates.

• Can we hire from outside the traditionally trained education paths to perform or automate some of the less-theoretical parts of our work? Perhaps those proficient in programming and gaming can augment our workforce.

• Retired civil engineers should help recruitment at the high schools. Create programs or classes that focus on civil engineering.

• A more-difficult solution is to change the government’s visa/immigration policies. International students are an overall positive to our university, because they create a more-diverse student body. I know this also is true in the workplace, so making it easier to retain international graduates would be a positive step.

I don’t have all the solutions, but this issue must be solved, and we need to act now. We have a great opportunity to show that civil engineering is one of the most-respected professions. We should leverage the respect and trust the civil engineering profession commands as we focus on recruitment and retention.

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About Robert Schickel

Robert Schickel was born in New Jersey and received his BS in Civil Engineering degree in 1971 from Valparaiso University in Indiana. His career started as a bridge design engineer and expanded to include design of various transportation facilities, including highways, bridges, rail lines and stations, and airport runways. Mr. Schickel managed engineering offices ranging from 20 to 140 people. He also served as a consultant to a large utility company. Mr. Schickel currently resides in Indiana and serves as Adjunct Professor for the College of Engineering at Valparaiso University. He enjoys his retired life at his lake house, playing golf, listening to music and spending time with his family, especially his grandchildren.

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